Climbing in the Red River Gorge, “The Red” for short, is particularly popular in the Fall. The low humidity and temperate climate allow for less sweat and better grip on the Corbin Sandstone. Climbers will often work on multiple routes, or “projects,” all summer with the intent of actually succeeding, or “sending,” them in the less humid fall. Needless to say, the last two weeks have been crowded with climbers striving for personal bests and with other climbers taking advantage of the drier than usual rock in this year’s drought conditions.
The Red is a valley full of many different climbing areas or crags, the farthest of which are more than 30 miles apart, north to south. Some areas, such a Muir Valley, are very large with 360 acres, and other areas are single walls along a road with only a handful of climbs. The climbing is often referred to as “Kentucky Steep” with some of the biggest holds you will ever fall off of.
The valley has both traditional (trad) lead climbing, where you place your own artificial protection as you climb, and sport climbing, where you clip draws into bolts that have been screwed or glued into the rock as you ascend. All of the placing and clipping of gear or bolts happens while still holding onto the rock in a certain stance. Sport climbing is easier in that it takes less energy to clip and bolt than to find a gear placement, place the piece, and then clip the piece. People often have more confidence in bolts holding a potential fall, but a well-placed piece of trad gear is a very good piece of gear. After not climbing all summer, Emma and I have opted to primarily sport climb. This decision allows us to climb more routes in a day, and harder routes, and we believe it will still help our trad climbing since it is making us stronger climbers overall, mentally and physically. The Red is also most known for its sport climbing and “when in Rome”….
We have been climbing with friends Jim and Kim from central New York. They have been giving us a tour of their favorite climbs and have been incredibly generous with their time and their mentoring. I feel like I’m on a VIP tour of The Red! Most of all, I feel lucky to be sharing the camaraderie of climbing with such good people. Jim and Kim are really encouraging and I trust their assessment of my skills. Thanks to their mentorship, I climbed my first 10b today! For many, this is a moderate grade, but for me this is progress! The 10b route was a vertical and delicate climb called Overlord and located on the Phantasia wall. I really enjoyed the more subtle movements required of my body and the problem solving throughout the climb. This was also the first climb where I was scared and felt like I might fall. I was between the last two bolts and was past what I thought was the most difficult part of the climb. I had marginal foot placements and reached up to what I thought was a positive hand-hold, only to find that it was sloping and did little for my sense of security. I then yelled an expletive, exhaled deeply, moved my feet to better holds that put my body off balance, and used a mediocre side-pull to reach higher holds. My Hail Mary worked, but for a few seconds, it looked like gravity was going to reign.
Climbing, and lead climbing in particular, pushes people out of their comfort zones. Clinging to the side of a vertical rock face isn’t exactly a natural environment for humans. The act of challenging ourselves and feeling comfortably nervous is a mental state wherein a lot of personal growth can occur. As a lead climber, I am more present, focused and mindful of my movements. I try to move deliberately and efficiently between restful stances and bolts or gear. When faced with a lot of exposure, or with a particularly difficult move, it is easy to lose focus and to become scared. When fear reigns, the climber is in the panic zone, heart rate rising, frantically gripping for positive holds with legs shaking up and down like a sewing machine. This can result in poor decision-making, impulsive actions, and sometimes scary falls.
Right now, I am doing my best not to be in the panic zone as a citizen of the United States of America. For those who don’t know me, I was an avid Hillary supporter. I was also horrified by Trump’s racism, sexism, and misogyny. Even if I had agreed with any of Trump’s policies, had he made them clear, I still would not have voted for him given the bigotry central to his campaign. Right now, it appears as if hate has won. I am determined for that not to be the case. I think anger and rage are important and necessary, but so too is taking a moment to pause and understand that many Americans voted for Trump because they feel ignored, disadvantaged, and overlooked. Despite my fear and despair for the very real threats that I see facing this nation under Trump’s presidency, I do not believe that more hate and more violence is a solution. In the words of Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”
I was an instructor for the Hurricane Island Outward Bound school for many years. One aspect of the school curriculum is to create challenges that allow participants to develop coping mechanisms not only for specific challenges in the present, but for more significant challenges that arise in life. This is one of those moments for me. I feel like I am in the panic zone on a climb, but I’ve failed to regain my composure, and I’ve fallen. I’m bruised and battered and too nervous to move forward. Finally, I have two options to finish: I can keep going up, or I can come down. To keep moving up, or forward, is almost always the right answer, and that is the answer I will choose. I will donate my time and energy to the organizations in this country that protect the civil and medical rights of the under-represented. I will volunteer for the democratic offices in the second congressional district in Maine to do whatever I can to preserve the civil rights of all residents, whether they are multi-generational Mainers, white Americans, or immigrants. I will attempt to identify how our political system needs to change to support all Americans and what I can do to help. But first, I will listen to my four year-old nephew’s advice. Yesterday, he was asked what he would do if he was President of the United States? His Answer: “I would make sure everyone goes to sleep and plays.” I will start here and return here to center myself. I will find my footing on rock and in this world and I will find a way to effect change!